This was my 12th cruise with Holland America. First time on the Amsterdam, from Ottawa, Canada.
Embarkation in Fort Lauderdale was long, but not onerous, given that 1,380 passengers had to leave and roughly the same number had to come onto the ship. It is the same tired port terminal where you hurry up and wait. Elderly people should not have to stand in lines for that long, and there is a very stupid new questionnaire form about intestinal illness and lung disease asked on the spot. Who is really going to pay attention to this---No one. An interesting minor change to previous immigration procedures for the Bahamas: The immigration form is no longer included in the HAL ticket folder, but is handed to all passengers during or after boarding the ship. Disembarkation after the cruise was smooth except for the pre-arranged limo-ride which never materialized, but since we were leaving the next day, this did not matter.
We docked first in Half-Moon Cay, Bahamas, Holland America's private island, found on most maps as Little San Salvador, which is near where Columbus arrived in the New World. Many people left the ship, on tenders for there are things to do on this island mostly involving water, such as snorkeling or scuba diving, snuba, para-sailing and some sea-do and boating activities. Bring both sun screen, and, something less obvious, bring insect repellent! This was followed by a wonderful day asea.
The next stops were at Oranjestad (Aruba) and the day following, Willemstad (Curaçao), both in the Netherlands Antilles. We went on a tour of Aruba for about three hours, which showed the contrasts of a very fast developing city, the isolation of the countryside and the desert area (which covers most of the island). The cacti are very interesting and come in several varieties, among which are those which look like the bearskin "busbies" worn by British and Canadian ceremonial military guards; on most Caribbean islands these succulents are government-protected as endangered species, but I did not see any signs. Aruba is formed of a mixture of volcanic rock, limestone and coral, resulting in some very strange land formations, such as the recently collapsed Natural Bridge (a limestone formation by the sea beyond the village of Noord). There was an aloe factory towards the end of the tour where various products were available. The tour was worth it. There is little crime on these self-governing Dutch dependencies, and one feels quite safe wandering about in the port area and beyond, and there is no vendor harassment.
Of special interest in Willemstad are the Queen Emma Floating Bridge near the main port area, which is equipped with an engine on one end which the Bridge Master uses to drag it out of the way to allow ships to pass through to a dockyard, the ‘floating market’, and port facilities for Dutch naval vessels. The Queen Juliana Bridge is a long suspension bridge over 50 metres high overlooking the port area built in 1974, which, if one walks to the middle of it, gives a fantastic view of the whole port area including any ships at the new Cruise Terminal. Taxis are cheap to ride up to one side of the high bridge (U$ 7.00), though the fare needs to be negotiated beforehand; the way to the port afterwards is downhill making this is an easy trip. The Koninklijke Marine (Royal [Netherlands] Navy) presents itself between noon and one p.m. to "show the flag" in whichever port they are in: The van Amstel III (F-831) is a ship of the Karel Doorman class of frigates and is named after a river in Holland (not the beer); it arrived flying all of her colours, its crew giving the full naval salute. The shopping area is large but not excessively so, it is level and easily navigated on foot. Shopping for clothing is very inexpensive relative to such places as the British Virgin Islands or Barbados, and the Caribbean motif shirts are spectacular. There is a floating market where ships from Venezuela arrive daily and sell agricultural produce and fish to the locals (and apparently on occasion to cruise-ship cooks). There many reasonably priced places to eat and drink close to the floating bridge and the floating market and by the old fort. There are jewellery stores to be found on both islands, with the customary cruise ship guarantees (check the shopping guide provided by the ship). Fort Amsterdam in Willemstad was built in 1635 and also gives a good view of the port area. The city also has the earliest synagogue in the Western hemisphere whose facilities are spartan and the floor is of sand (by choice); the building was quite hot when I visited it, and they are doing some renovations both to it and to an adjoining museum. One can tour the factory which makes the orange liqueur named after the island –good samples are available even outside the factory; it is amazing what the liqueur can be mixed with! The façade of the port area of both islands has pastel multi-coloured buildings for which Holland is famous. Aruba, Buenaire and Curaçao have a very multicultural component since workers were brought in from many other Caribbean islands (and elsewhere) to work in developing the downtown areas and the ports on all three islands, and for the oil industry in Aruba and Curaçao.
After a day asea, we arrived at the Panama Canal, for a partial transit, through the 3 Gatun locks to the lake of its same name, and back out into the Caribbean Sea. It cost the ship over $110,000 to do the part-way trip into Lake Gatun and return. It is possible to do a tour by boat or kayak, as well as by land, and there is an aerial tram ride offered as well. Before arriving at the locks, the ship took on pilots and a narrator who explained the history of the construction of the canal over the ship’s speakers (on the all of the outside decks only). As a nice touch, the normally closed bow deck was opened around 06:30, and on this and the other outside decks, rolls (Panama rolls of course!) coffee and juice was available; I went on the Verandah Deck’s open area (deck 6, forward)... We were also fortunate in having a lecturer on the cruise who spoke (on 3 occasions) about the Canal and the history of Panama. Before the first lock, on the starboard (right) side, one passes the "French Cut" which was De Lesseps' failed effort at making a sea-level canal from Atlantic to Pacific. The locks need to raise the ship 85 feet. The three of us took a shore excursion which entailed tendering to a wharf not far from the Gatun Dam, at the Gatun Yacht Club(!) where we boarded a restored old a train which took us through the countryside towards the Pacific, to the North from the Caribbean Sea, which is difficult to visualize. The only drawback with this tour was that there was also another cruise-ship involved, meaning a certain amount of waiting around after the train ride; we got on a bus which led us to the causeway where the Pacific entrance of the Canal is situated. On the jetty I put a finger in the (very) polluted water of the Pacific Ocean simply to announce that I had been there (using lots of Purell wash afterwards!!), Finally after sorting out the other cruise ship, the train came back to take us close to the Atlantic side, somewhere near Gamboa, where we boarded another bus and were taken back to the ship which was now docked in Colón, having exited the Canal (Colón is situated just outside of the Canal Area itself. The train tour was very worth it. You get an idea of the immense amount of work that was needed to create the Canal; we came quite close, but not quite close enough, to the Gaillard (Calubra) cut, and to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores sets of locks leading to the Pacific. To have seats in the dome car for the train, you should book this trip a long time before actually getting on board the cruise (this can be done online or through your travel agent). The scenery is amazing, because like neighbouring Costa Rica, the area is largely jungle and rain forest. The bus tour at the Pacific end around the city of Balboa was less worthwhile with too much politics coming from the local guide. The port of Colón was built on a swamp; cruise lines use it only as a jumping off point for expeditions and there is a "restricted" port shopping area, which is not very good, but which does have inexpensive shops where there are local handicrafts and souvenir products available—just in case you forgot. Most of the city itself is a slum and there are numerous travel advisories telling people not to go outside of the port area –and I do not recommend doing this either. This city began as Aspinwall in the mid 1800s, but in recent years has been in serious decline; it has always had a less than savory reputation since even its earliest days.
Limón (Puerto Limón), Costa Rica was a refreshing change from Colón. Although much of the tourism in Costa Rica is focussed on the Pacific coast with resorts and eco-tourism, things are now beginning on the Caribbean side. There is an aerial tram tour offered, through the canopy of the rain forest, also a narrow-gauge railway tour and a small-boat excursion along the Tortuguero canals. Much of the country is rain forest, and one can see exotic colourful birds, parrots, king-fishers, hawks, kites, and also monkeys, sloths, large iguanas, etc. along the highway outside the port bordering on a national park. Sea birds are also on view by the coast, and include especially white egrets and pelicans. There is also the plant used to create the Chanel No. 5 perfume, and another plant which looks like a very hairy red leechee, which the native population has used to dye clothing (beware, the plant and its liquid are very red and easily gets on fingers, colthing, etc. everywhere). The port is very busy, being used as the Atlantic terminus of the "Dry Canal", the overland highway used by trucks carrying containers from ships to or from the Pacific side at 4 hours rather than the 8 to 10 it takes to transit the Panama Canal. The market just outside of the port is very well maintained, they are aware of the linguistic disabilities of (mostly English-speaking) cruise passengers (the merchants help each other out with translating), it is a quite safe area. There are so many attractive things to buy, from walking canes (made like pool cues so they can be dismantled for packing in ones’ luggage) to complex wooden puzzle-boxes, both of which make ideal gifts.
After 2 days asea, it was, unfortunately, back to Fort Lauderdale.The Ship
The Amsterdam is approx. 61,000grt, and 750 feet long, it is the non-identical twin of the Rotterdam (the first flag-ship of the fleet) and constitutes the second flagship of the fleet. It deserves this title. It is very similar in size to HAL’s identical twins, the Zandaam and Volendam which are a little longer and slightly heavier. When the ship was launched, some reviews described the décor as being gaudy, but I do not find this; the lounge/theatre, forward is actually plainer and more conservative than those in the Vista class ships. The Fontaine Dining Room is also tastefully decorated.
I was in a cabin by myself, very forward, starboard (right) side, cabin 3305, on the Lower Promenade ("walkies") deck (deck 3), not too far from the fwd staircase (there are three staircases and three sets of elevators on the ship ---not counting a set of stairs between at least three decks aft descending from the pool--- since it is a smaller ship than the Vista Class vessels). The couple I travel with were a little further back, closer to the forward staircase, port (left) side, cabin 6114, on the Verandah Deck (deck 6). Even though all of us were very forward, the seas were so calm for the entire cruise that there was almost no motion at all from the sea. Holland America cabins and verandahs tend to be more spacious than those on other cruise ships, and the verandah comfortably fit all three of us, including a comfortable and long reclining chair and a table; the sides of the verandahs are of solid construction, so there is a minimum of danger from damage from lit cigarettes thrown overboard from the verandahs above. Looking across at other cruise ships, one can see that HAL really does give you more verandah space.
The Lido, the casual dining area of many cruise ships, was alright but suffers from occasional overcrowding at peak times, like on other HAL ships. The omelette station at breakfast includes an assortment of fruit, juices and bacon or sausage; at lunch, there were 'food stations' for Italian (pasta etc.), custom sandwiches, wok (stir-fry), traditional ‘North American’, and even sushi was available at one place- all of which meant fewer multiple-line-ups, however, given the number of people on the ship, at breakfast and lunch, on sea days in particular, you still have to send someone to guard seats in the Lido. The couple I was travelling with ordered room service for breakfast on a couple of the sea days and found that the food arrived as ordered and on time. They consider this a good option to escape breakfast in the Lido. We also all had breakfast in the Fontaine dining room a few times where there was an interesting daily short list of 3 or 4 specials in addition to the set menu.
The Fontaine Dining room was the standard, on two levels. Three of us were at a table for 4, at the late seating, (table 154). Service was above average, the occasional lateness in the dining room being something going on in the kitchen rather than with the waiting staff. Holland America has a new permanent location for a ‘wine desk’ on each of their ships, having now restored the former practice of being able to pre-order wines for dinner the same day, as a feature of the Wine Navigator Program from 1993 to 2005 --now, just as in the past, you can pre-order your wine from the package you have bought, instead of having to chase after a wine steward to order it at the meal itself, which was real a nuissance in January 2006 on the Westerdam. The evening menus are posted in the bars and at the wine desk around noon. The wine stewards in the dining room are still taking soft drink orders (and serving them) which continues to be a waste of their time. With a crew of about 647, there are approximately 100 dining room stewards and 100 staff in the kitchens!
The Pinnacle restaurant was very good, impeccable service. The layout is different, being more 'open' but in a cosy setting, although there is no view to the outside. The 3 of us went twice, once for dinner and once for lunch. There is a surcharge for going to this restaurant (U$30 per person for dinner and U$15.00 for lunch at present).
The spa is, and has always been, far too aggressive in peddling their products; I travelled with a married couple; she is used to spending a lot of money on the spa facilities when on a cruise and found the staff saying that her professional (i.e. medical) dermatologist did not know what he was talking about!, Her husband arrived on the ship with hair too long for the salt air and was given a fixed price for a haircut agreeing to a price over the phone, which the manager of the spa promptly increased after the fact by over a third, saying it was ‘styling’ rather than ‘haircutting’. This behaviour underlines the negative reputation that many spas and salons have on all cruise ships with their pushiness, their overcharging, and their flogging of products containing ingredients which are no longer recommended by many dermatologists. Cruise lines should reduce this part of the ship considerably and, should do what has been done to my great joy in the past with overly aggressive photographers on staff, namely, there should be some serious reining in.
The pools, one uncovered, outside, aft, and the other by the Lido with its moveable roof, were very clean and very well maintained, with water samples taken daily. The hot-tubs by the Lido were all working and were also well maintained. The Lower Promenade "walkies" deck does not extend right to the bow area, as is the case with almost all modern ships but the sight lines are clean, as on earlier HAL ships, and there is less obstruction on that deck than on their larger Vista class ships.
The cabins are roomy, all of the televisions have been replaced with better quality flat-screen ones and there are DVD players in each cabin; the ship’s channels have features that one might have not been able to attend, such as the ship’s own cooking demos, lectures about the ports of call (useful), the disembarkation talk (important to listen to or to attend), lectures by the occasional official guest on a theme (i.e. the Panama Canal); there was even an old documentary on the Canal with clips from the 20’s to the 80’s, and for those who missed it, the very entertaining Filipino Crew Show. The channel indicating the ship’s current position and the last report from the Bridge was not working for most of the cruise(!), There are washing machines on the ship, but for $12 you can use the single laundry bag option in the advertised laundry packages; I would rather not be doing laundry on a vacation anyway! The room stewards (a different one for each of the two cabins) were both extremely high end HAL and the friends with whom I was travelling, who have now done 25 cruises, mentioned that he was the best ever! There were no plumbing problems which have occasionally affected other ships of the fleet.
The library and several nearby rooms have been remodelled to provide for a larger internet centre and the space has been opened up, making a much more user-friendly area. The space appeared to be very well-used during most of the day, with many using computers, the new listening stations for music, or enjoying a latté from the adjacent coffee bar in the comfortable setting. Both books and DVDs were available for loan from the library; on many days when going up to get the daily quizz, there was a full-sized or very slightly reduced copy of the front section of either the Herald Tribune or the New York times. The library area is also equipped with new reading lights at very a long table which make it easier for those people who have limited vision. Other HAL ships have had or are undergoing similar restructuring.
The three of us attended two wine tastings, presided over by a good but rather pompous head wine steward. Why both of these were scheduled at the same time as the Panama Canal lecturer, I do not know, since the same people would be inclined to go to both; the wine tastings suffered from a lack of attendance. The first one was free and took place in the Fontaine Dining room; the second had a fee attached and was conducted in the Pinnacle Grill where a champagne bottle was decapitated with a large cooking knife, without damage or glass particles showering the attendees or the wine. There were also (free) cooking shows in the Wajang Theatre and Culinary Arts Centre where a variety of things from the ship's menu are prepared and where passengers on a very limited basis can enrol (for a very reasonable U$29.00 per class fee) in a cooking course. At the demonstrations a couple of TV cameras are used in this process, including one giving overhead shots which are projected onto large screens. For either the wine tasting or the culinary demonstrations, plan on eating less lunch if it is in the morning; for the for-fee cooking classes, plan on eating no lunch!
The way the ship is structured, it more closely resembles the "S" Class ships (Statendam, etc.) and the slightly larger identical twins mentioned above, the Volendam and Zaandam, rather than the Vista Class ships (Zuiderdam, etc.); this meant that the Ocean Bar had a sufficiently large dance floor and served also as a very convenient meeting place (on the larger HAL ships, this bar is neglected and is much smaller as well as not being particularly convenient as a meeting place). As with all of the HAL ships except for the Vista Class, one of the levels has no access to the rest of the ship from the dining room, being blocked by the kitchen (this is why there are large emergency exits there equipped with abnormally wide stairways). We went to the Crows’ Nest bar atop the ship, forward, once, but on realizing that we preferred the band in the Ocean Bar we remained there for the pre-dinner (late sitting) for the rest of the cruise.
For the first time in 12 cruises, I attended the Filipino Crew Show, which should not be missed, it features vaudeville and some intricate dancing, Filipino-style, with some surprising touches at the end. We attended at least one of the shows put on by the entertainers, mostly dance numbers, which were good.
The HAL website is not very useful, instead of being latest edition of whatever engine runs it, it should be on an earlier edition of their engine, with an option to go to a later form of the engine for other aspects of the website, so that everyone can at least see the brochures. I continue to depend on hard copy brochures since I either can not find or can not print the on-line versions.